President Barack Obama's and the Democrats key legislative priority this midterm election raising the federal minimum wage was blocked in the Senate from advancing by Republicans. The Senate Republicans on Wednesday morning, April 30, 2014 led a filibuster and prevented the Minimum Wage Fairness Act to advance with a vote of 54 for and 42 votes against when 60 votes were required for cloture and advancing the bill. The fight over the minimum wage has become a central campaign focus between the Democrats and the Republicans, with points with the voters mattering more than if the legislation would actually help Americans.
All the Democrats minus Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV voted for the minimum wage raise. Reid changed his vote, to vote against it as "a procedural rule" allowing him to bring the bill up again for a vote this year. The rare Democrat who opposed the bill was absent, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-AK, because of the tornado damage in his state. All the Republicans voted against the raise except for one Sen. Bob Corker, R-TN who joined the Democrats in voting for the bill.
The Senate bill to raise the minimum wage is sponsored and authored by two Democrats, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and California Representative George Miller. The Minimum Wage Fairness Act would raise the wage from $7.25, the minimum wage since 2009 to $10.10 for all American workers. The president's plan and the Senate's bill for increasing the minimum wage in three increments raising the minimum hourly wage until it finally reaches $10.10 by 2016, raise tax credits, and have legislation indexing the minimum wage so it will automatically be raised to meet inflation and the rise in cost of living, and raising the minimum wage for tipped workers from $2.13 an hour to $4.90. The bill however, included a tax code change which Roll Call explained "would extend higher limits on expensing." Because of the tax code change the bill needed actually to be originally passed by the House of Representatives first "to avoid a constitutional challenge."
Speaking on the Senate floor on Tuesday, April 29 Sen. Harkin tried to convince the Senate to vote for raising the minimum wage, emphasizing that it will both help Americans and economy. Harkin stated; "What we are going to vote on [Wednesday] will have a drastic effect on millions of American families - and it is going to have a big effect on our economy, because it will boost our economy and get the wheels going again, because people will have more money to spend. They will spend it on Main Street, and that is what is lacking right now - consumer demand - consumers with enough money to spend on Main Street." Speaking prior to the actual vote on Wednesday morning, Harkin challenged the Republicans asking; "Who's going to vote to give these people a fair shot at the American dream? And who's going to vote against it?"
The bill to raise the minimum wage would have faced opposition in the Republican House of Representatives from the Speaker John Boehner, R-OH who has numerous times stated that raising the minimum wage will result in fewer jobs for the lower income bracket. The Republican Congress is reluctant citing an Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) recent report stating jobs will be loss as a result of a raise. According to the OMB 500,000 jobs would be lost, but 16.5 million Americans would benefit, and 900,000 would be raised above the poverty level. A new Bloomberg poll released on Monday, April 28 indicated that 58 percent of Americans find it "unacceptable" to raise the minimum wage, if it results in job losses.
Harkin in his Senate floor speech on Tuesday, April 29 argued against that job losses claim, stating; "Again, we hear from the other side that by raising the minimum wage there will be this massive loss of jobs. That is simply not true. It is a myth. But it is brought up every time. I have been in Congress now 40 years. We have raised the minimum wage several times during that period of time both under Democratic and Republican presidents. Every time it has come up, we hear that same old song: It is going to cost jobs. Guess what. Every time we raise the minimum wage, there has been no big loss of jobs."
Republicans in the Senate also opposed the bill, because it would lead to jobs losses and stifle job creation. Many Republicans also find that the raise is too much and prefer the $9 amount the president proposed in his 2013 State of the Union Address including Sen. Rob Portman, R-OH who said "It's too high, too fast." While for others the mere fact that that Sen. Reid opposed adding any amendments was a turn-off, adding Republican provisions sweetens the deal and can make a bill more acceptable to opposing Republicans. Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME is open to a compromise bill, stating; "I think it speaks to what's wrong with Washington today -- that we're placed in a situation where it was 'take it or leave it' rather than trying to come together and offer amendments and offer a level that might be acceptable."
President Obama and Sen. Harkin however, oppose a compromise on the pay raise standing firm; "We will not compromise on $10.10. That just gets us above the poverty level." The president and Sen. Harkin claim Republicans oppose the minimum wage because they believe only the youth work in minimum wage jobs when in reality they average age 35, half are women, 7 million are raising families. Additionally, the Council of Economic Advisers estimates that when that is done a total of 28 million Americans will benefit.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV spoke on the Senate floor about the upcoming month of work, and blamed the Koch brothers and their support of Tea Party conservatives as the real reason behind Republicans oppose raising the minimum wage. Sen. Reid expressed; "If Americans are searching for an answer, why they would refuse to raise the minimum wage, they should look no further than the Republicans' billionaire benefactors -- I repeat, billionaire benefactors, the Koch brothers." Reid also stated before the vote that "Millions of American workers will be watching how United States senators vote today. They'll be observing to see if we ensure all full-time workers in this country receive livable wages."
Charles and David Koch are two influential conservative and libertarian benefactors, who have increasingly infusing their money into presidential elections and congressional races, and this campaign year is no different. On his Senate website. Reid even has a page entitled "The Facts About The Koch Brothers" on their positions on issues including their opposition to raising the minimum wage. During this midterm election year, the animosity between the Senate majority leader and the Koch Brothers and their influence on many races has increased.
Commenting after the vote Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY criticized the Democrats, saying; "These are the same Washington Democrats who have been at the helm of the economy for five-and-a-half years, the same ones who have been bragging about a recovery….They seem to think they can coast on talking points and stale ideas - and that the American people haven't been paying attention to their recent dismal record at actually helping the people they claim to care about."
Most of the post vote statements, focused on the upcoming midterm elections; McConnell accused the Democrats of using the vote as an election ploy, saying; "They don't even pretend to be serious about jobs anymore." According the GOP Senate Leader the Democrats' "true focus" is the midterm elections and "making the far left happy - not helping the middle class." After the vote Sen. Reid laid all the blame on the GOP; "Today we saw a clear distinction between what we're fighting for, we Democrats, and the Republicans, what they're fighting for. They're fighting for the billionaires. We're fighting for people who are struggling to make a living."
Sen. Harkin made the GOP vote blocking the bill a midterm campaign issue, declaring; "I'm confident that if we don't raise the minimum wage in Congress before the election. The American people are going to speak about this at the ballot box in November." Sen. Harkin also vowed to bring the bill back to a Senate vote later this year; "This is not the only time that you will see the Senate vote on the minimum wage bill this year. We'll be back again and again, and we'll keep trying until we get this to the president's desk."
Raising the minimum wage is central to the president's economic opportunity to give Americans the chance to reach the middle-class. The economic opportunity program consists of four elements; creating good paying jobs, technical job training programs, education initiatives from Pre-K to college, and fair wages including equal pay for equal work and raising the minimum wage. Since delivering his State of the Union address in January the president has been pushing Congress to raise the minimum wage. Obama wants to lift the wage up from $7.25 to $10.10 for all American workers by 2016, and continues to urge Congress to pass legislation.
According to the recent polls Americans support a raise to the minimum wage. The most recent poll conducted by ABC News/Washington Post and released on Tuesday, April 29 found support for the minimum wage increase was 49 percent for and 33 opposed. A Bloomberg poll from March found support at 69 percent. A Quinnipiac survey from January released when the president first announced the initiative in his State of the Union Address showed that 71 percent of Americans in general support raising the minimum wage, and a majority of Republicans at 52 percent support the raise. And a CBS News/New York Times poll published in February showed that two-thirds of Americans support a raise.
Obama and Democrats have chosen economic opportunity and raising the minimum wage as their key issue in the midterm election campaign. The Democrats are on the edge where they might lose six seats and their control on the Senate. They already realize regaining control of the House of Representatives is virtually impossible at this point. Republicans have the advantage according to CNN as the midterm elections get closer. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from Wednesday, April 30 that asks voters who should control Congress demonstrated that among Americans who plan to vote in the midterms the GOP are leading 53 percent to 38 percent. This is because Republicans are more interested in the midterms than Democrats and more apt to vote this November. A CBS News poll indicated that 78 percent of Republicans intend to vote in November, but only 68 percent of Democrats plan to.
Presidents often see their parties lose seats in the second midterm elections of their terms, and Obama and Democrats are trying to curb that precedent. President Obama and Democrats have been forcing legislation on the Republicans without allowing compromises or added provisions that they know will fail just to highlight in this election year the difference between Republicans and Democrats and caring for the middle class. Despite public support for the initiative, raising the minimum wage has not energized the base and voters as much as the Democrats had hoped. President Obama and the Democrats will continue focusing on economic issues important to the Democratic base and included in the Obama budget, and attack, attack and mock the Republicans hoping it will be enough to keep the Senate come November.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.